“Most of life is ordinary...ordinary isn’t the enemy but instead something nourishing and unavoidable, the bedrock upon which the rest of experience ebbs and flows,” writes Mike Powell in a recent New York Times essay about embracing the process of washing dishes as a ritual practice in patience. Write a poem that considers a household chore in a new light. Is there anything extraordinary about the ordinariness of an everyday activity such as your job commute, making your bed, taking out the trash, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, or pumping gas into your car? How can these tasks be viewed as a nourishing element of your life?
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star (Nan A. Talese, 2019), begins with a photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt at a party in Berlin in 1928, a chance snapshot of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl during their early years of celebrity. Koe’s novel explores each of their lives and worlds, as they navigate womanhood in Berlin, Hollywood, the Alps, and Paris. Taking inspiration from this idea of drawing narrative—both historical and mythological—from a single image, search through your old photos and select one that depicts a few people from your past. Consider the period and its conventions, and research news events that were occurring at the time. Write a personal essay that examines your relationship with each person and their relationships with one another while also weaving in historical events and your memories about the particular occasion.
“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” In Colson Whitehead’s seventh novel, The Nickel Boys (Doubleday, 2019), the protagonist, Elwood Curtis, replays these powerful words by Martin Luther King Jr. from a record album he received as a young boy in the early 1960s, which he considers “the best gift of his life.” Throughout the book Elwood repeatedly refers to King’s words as a source of guidance, inspiration, and morality. Write a short story in which your main character is similarly inspired by an important historical figure’s words—words of wisdom written or spoken by an artist, author, or activist. How did your character first come across these words? Are they comforting or provocative? Does the meaning or significance of the words change over time as the character evolves?
“Language is a living being. I think that language came before humans, not the other way around…. It might not have been a particularly logical language; more likely, it was paradisiacal and timeless, a kind of happy babbling for the sake of babbling, a kind of music.” In her essay “Language and Madness,” translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney and posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Aase Berg writes about the influence of power and patriarchy on language and describes an evolution by which language has become self-conscious and utilitarian, “more descriptive instead of creative.” How has your own language output—in both everyday and poetic usage—been tamed? Write a poem that plays with the idea of timeless, illogical language. What does happy babbling look or sound like? What expressive potential can you tap into to write with childish madness about the banalities of private life?
“A plume came and a plume went,” said NASA scientist Paul Mahaffy about the possibility of a sign of life detected on Mars after a startling spike in the amount of methane gas found in a crater prompted excitement. A second test a few days later, however, came up with nothing. Write an essay about a time when something occurred which gave rise to a certain expectation, and then the situation did not pan out as hoped. What was the progression of emotions involved? How did your interactions with those around you fluctuate over the course of your experience?
“We think of the walls of a house as defining our domestic space, but in the novel these boundaries start to soften, for inside the house it’s as wild as outside,” says Chia-Chia Lin about her debut novel, The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), in an interview with Yaa Gyasi in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the novel, an immigrant family lives in a house in Alaska and deals with isolation, grief, and the vulnerability of the house to infiltration. Write a short story in which the stability of a house as a domestic space has been compromised. What happens when what was once thought as safe and interior becomes blurred with what’s presumed to be wild and exterior?
Enclosed within black iron gates in the Alnwick Garden in northern England is the Poison Garden, a collection of one hundred deadly plants dreamed up by the Duchess of Northumberland as a unique way to entice and educate visitors about the medicinal and toxic quality of plants. This week, browse through Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of world’s deadliest plants and select one to read and think more deeply upon. Write a poem inspired by the unique capabilities of the plant, meditating on both its superficial characteristics and its potential to heal, harm, or do both.
This past Sunday, Nik and Lijana Wallenda, seventh-generation members of the Flying Wallendas circus family, walked a 1,300-foot wire tightrope suspended between two skyscrapers, twenty-five stories above Times Square in New York City. “It was hard to hold it together,” stated Nik in an interview in the New York Times, describing the emotionally intense moment when he met his sister in the middle of the wire, before they carefully passed each other and then continued their separate ways to opposite ends. Write a personal essay about a time when you met someone face-to-face for an intense confrontation. How did the anticipation build as you got closer to meeting, and how was the tension released?
How would you experience everyday life differently if you had eight arms? If you could turn your skin metallic or reflective, or blend into any background and remain unseen, would you use this power to escape from dangerous or awkward situations? In celebration of Cephalopod Week, write a short story in which your main character possesses some type of octopus, squid, or cuttlefish characteristic. Describe the benefits of newfound capabilities, and what might prove unexpectedly difficult with these peculiar attributes.
Who were you when you first fell in love with writing? In “Be Bold,” Rigoberto González’s profile of Ocean Vuong in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Vuong describes the importance of consistently reminding himself of who he was when he first discovered his passion for writing, explaining, “I bring him to the present, not the person who won the awards—he has nothing to teach me.” Spend some time thinking of the person you were when you first came to writing. What were your intentions? What did writing provide that nothing else did? Write an ode to your younger, novice self inspired by the emotions and intentions that still excite you.
“A writer’s library is more than just a collection of books. It is also a piecemeal biography of that writer’s life,” writes James P. Blaylock in his essay “My Life in Books: A Meditation on the Writer’s Library” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, write a personal essay that follows a timeline of five or six books that have been benchmarks in your life, or played pivotal roles in some way. Who were the people in your life when you read each book, what were your geographical surroundings, and what were some of your major accomplishments, issues, or concerns at the time? What are the thematic links that lead from one book to the next?
“This is a novel. All facts are true, but I have imagined feelings, thoughts, and dialogue. I used intuition and deduction rather than actual invention…. When I read about him, something happened. He started to live in my head like a character in a novel,” writes Catherine Cusset in the prologue to her latest book, Life of David Hockney: A Novel (Other Press, 2019), translated from the French by Teresa Fagan, which offers a portrait of the famous painter through a blend of biography and fiction. Think of an artist whose work you admire, whose character or life circumstances resonate with you in a personal way. Research some basic facts about this artist’s life, and then write a short story that focuses on emotional truth, using your intuition to imagine feelings and thoughts.
Have you ever listened to a plant? Adrienne Adar’s “Sonic Succulents: Plant Sounds and Vibrations” exhibit at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in which plants are attached with sensors to record their vibrations, revolves around the sonic life of plants, presenting recordings of their sounds to be heard by visitors and other plants, and exploring human reactions, perspectives, and relationships with plants and the natural world. Listen to some sample recordings, and write a poem that imagines what transpires during plant communication. Is the content urgent, mundane, profound, or silly? Perhaps play with arrangements of spacing, language, syntax, and sound to create an atmospheric piece that reflects your vision of plants in conversation.
“My feckless Googling had reaped a monstrous reality that I knew was going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” Douglas Preston writes in Wired about a nostalgia-induced online search for his childhood best friend that leads him into some unexpectedly dark territory. This week, think about a time when you inadvertently uncovered something (good or bad) you weren’t meant to know—perhaps you overheard a conversation about yourself or someone close to you, followed an Internet search that spiraled to an unintentional conclusion, or submitted an online DNA kit without considering the consequences. Write an essay about the discovery and the actions you took as a response. Did you confront this new truth or carry on as if you had never learned it?
In “Job Opening: Seeking Historian With Tolerance for Harsh Weather, the Occasional Bear,” MPR News reporter Euan Kerr interviews Lee Radzak about his retirement this spring after thirty-six years as the lighthouse keeper at Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior in Minnesota. Radzak says many of the romantic notions about lighthouses can be attributed to the physical space they inhabit on “the edge—the edge of land and of water,” but that there are also difficult and tedious tasks that accompany his job. This week, write a story about someone who resides and works in a space that is intermittently peopled and completely isolated—a national park, a large estate, or a new planet. How do these extremes affect the life of your character?
A recent United Nations report found that nearly one million species are at risk of extinction in the not-so-distant future, in large part due to human overconsumption of land and resources. This week, write a poem to honor one of these endangered species—perhaps the South China tiger, the Bornean orangutan, or the Hawksbill sea turtle. Frame your dedication as a love poem, an epistolary poem, a note of apology, or an elegy. What would you say to these creatures if they could understand you? For inspiration, peruse these animal-themed poems from the Academy of American Poets archives.
“Lyrical essays are more like jazz than a concerto. The idea that lyrical essays are more poetic than logical has allowed authors to play fast and loose with the truth,” writes GD Dess in his Los Angeles Review of Books review of Elisa Gabbert’s essay collection The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018). Think of a current conflict or issue in your personal life that remains unresolved—perhaps you are uncertain where exactly the truth of the matter lies. Write a lyric essay that engages with the seemingly solid facts of the topic, but allow yourself the freedom to veer into stream of consciousness and follow a “more poetic” logic.
“Experiencing gives you a ‘first’ person perspective. You see others while you act. Watching gives you a ‘third’ person perspective. You learn something about how others see you,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine professor who studies memory, in Julia Cho’s New York Times piece on how watching a recording of an event can alter one’s initial memory of the experience. Write a scene in which your character attends or participates in a performance, party, or special occasion. Explore how her initial memory of the experience changes once she watches a video of the event. What stands out from the recording that hadn’t been noticed before? How does this reshape her memory?
Created by former Disney Imagineer David Hanson, Sophia is one of the world’s most expressive robots. She can mirror people’s postures, discern emotions from tone and expression, and react with her own realistic facial movements. National Geographic photographer Giulio Di Sturco says about their first meeting, “She started to look at me and smile, and I looked at her, and at that point for me, she was not human, but there was kind of a connection.” Write a poem about an imagined encounter with Sophia. How do you envision an emotional connection with a lifelike robot? What kind of language would you use?
“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life—and theirs,” Kio Stark says in her 2016 TED Talk “Why You Should Talk to Strangers.” As children, we are often cautioned against talking to strangers, but as adults, this warning becomes nearly impossible to heed. Whether online or in person, many of our daily interactions are with people we may never see or speak to again. Once in a while, this anonymity can lead to a level of intimacy and honesty that is surprising and unparalleled even with close friends or family. Think about a time in your life when an unexpected moment with a stranger had a profound effect on you. Write an essay about this exchange, the circumstances surrounding it, and what it meant to you.
What does it mean to be crowned the ugliest in the village? Every year, thousands gather in Piobbico, Italy to attend the Festival of the Ugly and vote for the president of the World Association of Ugly People, known by locals as Club dei Brutti. In the Paris Review, Rebecca Brill writes of the festival and attendees: “Centuries of hard work have destigmatized ugliness to the point that Piobbicans declare their ugliness cavalierly, as if the categorization were no more charged than that of having say, brown hair or blue eyes.” This week, write a story in which characters vie for a prize or title that would be generally considered undesirable. Describe the history of the competition and what this unusual accolade means to your characters.
Sandra Simonds’s essay “Riot Girl,” published by the Poetry Foundation, praises the work of Chelsey Minnis and her “unladylike poetry.” Of a Minnis poem titled “Anti Vitae,” Simonds notes how it is organized as “a humorous, self-reported catalog of failures in the form of a faux CV.” For this week’s prompt, choose a form that is not inherently inspiring—a tax form, visa application, or cover letter—and borrow from its prescriptive language and structure to format your own poem. Let the form constrict your writing as much (or as little) as you’d like—perhaps writing an “anti” poem like Minnis’s or embracing the form faithfully for effect.
Anna Wintour’s office, the United Nations’ Security Council Consultations Room, David Zwirner’s office, an IKEA design lab, a Fox News studio. Brent Murray’s New York Times piece “The Rooms Where It Happens” showcases photographs of these rarely seen spaces where powerful decision-making occurs. Write a personal essay about a room that has played an important role in your life. Describe the furniture, lighting, and paraphernalia, and consider the actions, behaviors, and thinking you’ve done in this room. Are there expected and unexpected correlations between the objects and actions?
This spring, a six-ton potato structure, formerly used as a traveling advertisement by the Idaho Potato Commission, will be available for guests to rent through Airbnb. The Big Idaho Potato Hotel includes amenities such as air conditioning and heating, a bathroom, an indoor fireplace, and an antler chandelier. Located on four hundred acres of farmland about twenty-five miles southeast of Boise, the one-bedroom potato can accommodate two people. Write a story that revolves around a character’s stay in the potato. Does the unconventional setting lead to weird, scary, or humorous occurrences?
Scientists have discovered new evidence that perception of odors can have extremely significant variations from person to person. According to a recent study published in the science journal PNAS, depending on different genetic codes, one person might find the scent of a compound in men’s sweat intensely disgusting, while someone else might find it similar to the scent of vanilla, or might not be able to smell it at all. Write a poem that begins with a scent that you find intense. Then consider the idiosyncrasies of sensory perceptions: Can these experiences be both personal and universal?